I recently shared a story about my brother in law’s many hunting contacts that he has made by working in the construction industry. He has one buddy that is by and far the most prolific public land hunter I have ever met in person. He is a bowhunter and has taken everything from bighorn sheep to Sitka blacktailed deer with his bow. But first and foremost, he is a mule deer hunter.
I have never hunted with Randy personally but have witnessed all of his mounts and heard many of his stories. My brother in law got his big “devil tine” bull with the assistance of Randy and I have run across him in the woods while hunting turkeys. He has a good knowledge of hunting mule deer in the foothills along the front range of Colorado. For the past few years he has been on quite the streak. This particular year he was focusing on a very large ridge that climaxed in a sharp knob. As far as the hogbacks and foothills go, this feature could pretty much be called a full on mountain. But since this state harbors the majority of the 14ers (peaks that stretch to over 14,000 feet above sea level) in the lower 48, I am hesitant to give it “mountain status”. The ridge was mostly covered in dense shrubs but had the occasional ponderosa pine and juniper scattered about. There was also an oddly placed patch of old growth ponderosa’s on top of the knob that rose high above the other foothills. It was the only remaining stand of trees within the boundary of a long past burn that scorched the surrounding hills. This particular area is publically owned but does not get a whole lot of pressure by hunters because most people assume that it is private. Most people don’t think about hunting it because it is surrounded by private lands on three sides.
On this particular hunt though, Randy would have company. After scouting the area heavily during the summer, he had located a couple whopper bucks. A lot of guys think that you cannot pattern mule deer. They believe that the intensive scouting and patterning that people use on white tailed deer in the east, can only prove futile on the deer of the west. This is a falsehood. I have seen it done and have successfully patterned mule deer myself. And after putting a lot of time in at this particular spot, he had been able to pattern the local bucks’ route and time that they would take between a water hole that on private land and the patch of ponderosas on top of the steep knob. He had identified three different shooter bucks at this spot along with many other younger bucks and does. Two of the shooters were cookie-cutter typical mule deer that would both score in the 150-160’s. The other had better tine length all around and was estimated to score in the 170’s. All three of the bucks had great back forks but weaker front forks. But as they say, beggars can’t be choosers. Well… maybe they can but any buck scoring more than 150 is a dandy in my opinion and thought should be taken into throwing an arrow at them.
The weather had been very hot and thus these low country bucks were using water at regular intervals throughout the day. It was obvious that sitting on that trail that the bucks would use to access this water would be a good strategy and it was going to be used if bucks could not be glassed up and stalked in the surrounding foothills. What Randy did not expect was for there to be three other trucks parked at the gate that he used to access the area come opening morning. He would be hunting with one of his buddies from work and their plans did not include working around three other groups of hunters. They had not seen any other groups of hunters scouting the area over the summer and were completely caught off guard. It was still dark and the hunters had already left their trucks and there was no telling what their plans were or where they would be once the sun came up. They decided that the other hunters would probably be hunting the first couple foothills since they probably did not know the area as well as them. Thus they took off for a canyon that would take them back past the first couple hogbacks and put them back by the border of private land where the game trail from private to public lied. They had not planned on the long hike and therefore they had only made it about half way to their new destination by the time that shooting light rolled around.
They stopped to glass as soon as they could make out the surrounding ridges and they instantly spotted deer. A line of deer just kept rolling over the top of the first ridge in the direction of the trucks. Doe after doe crested the ridge and continued down through the shrubs. By the time the chain of deer had stopped dumping over the top of the ridge, the first deer in the line came into view again. They were climbing the next ridge and not slowing. But now they could see deer that they couldn’t earlier. The two identical bucks were leading the group. They had no idea if the does had spooked them once they got out of sight in the flat between ridges or if they had just not spotted them while they were coming over the first ridge. It did not matter at this point… all they knew is that their bucks were on the move. The bucks split off from the does and ran along the top of the ridge heading in the direction of the lonely stand of ponderosas. Right after the bucks disappeared on the other side of the ridge that Randy was now starting to climb, they saw two hunters silhouette themselves on top of the ridge where the herd of deer had come from. It was obvious that these hunters, oblivious to the area and the behavior of its resident deer herd, had hiked out from their trucks into the unknown and had spooked the big herd.
It did not take long for Randy to take off in the direction of the ponderosas. During a summer scouting trip, he had once spooked the twin bucks and they had used this same escape route. They had made a break for the cover provided by the stand of old conifers and bedded down where they could keep an eye on the valley below. He knew that if they could sneak into their pre-determined ambush site on the game trail that connected the stand to the waterhole, that they could wait for the bucks to get thirsty. The whole plan depended on the wind and what direction it would be blowing up on top of the ridge. They ducked out of sight and started climbing. They were able to stay out of sight all the way to their destination and they found that the wind was indeed cooperating! Now all they had to do was wait for the bucks to get up from their beds, leave the security of the ponderosa stand and waltz out into the open heading for the waterhole on the other side of the ridge. If the bucks were to follow that script, the hunters would find themselves with a text book shot.
The problem was, they did not even know if the bucks had repeated the behavior of bedding down in the ponderosas after being spooked. They had disappeared before the hunters could see what they did. They were heading in the direction of the trees but there was no telling if they had bedded down in them or if they had just kept using their “getaway sticks” for the extra quarter mile that it would take for them to find the safety of private land. They waited an hour or so and their curiosity got the best of them. They took the chance at spooking the bucks and climbed to the top of the ridge to in order to glass into the trees. They were only 100 yards from the trees and instantly made out the form of one of the twins bedded beneath an old, gnarled ponderosa. They could not see the other buck from their vantage point but they assumed that he had stuck with his comrade.
They crawled back down to their ambush site but before they made it there… they heard stotting. For those that don’t know, stotting is an odd gait that is unique to mule deer. All four hooves touch the ground at the same time in an amazing bounding motion. It is very neat thing to witness but not while you are hunting them. Many a stalk has ended with the thump…thump… thump of a mule deer stotting away from a disappointed hunter. So when Randy heard this, he knew he had to move fast. He then noticed that the wind had switched and had taken their scent directly to the bucks. He ran around the wall of mountain mahogany that they had been using for cover. Before stepping out from behind the shrubs, he knocked an arrow. As soon as he took a step to the left, he locked eyes with both of the bucks. They were 60 yards away and ready to make a break for it. He swiftly drew his bow and released an arrow. It found its mark and the fletchings disappeared right behind the bucks shoulder.
They gave the buck twenty minutes and then got on the blood trail. The buck had barely made it off the other side of the ridge and died within 70 yards of being shot. It was a good thing the shot had been true because the buck only had to cover 200 or 300 yards before making it to the private land boundary.
The hunters had a different plan of how the hunt would go down. But when you put a buck of this caliber on the ground on opening day of archery season, you sort of forget about the annoyance of uninvited hunters interfering with earlier plans. One way or another, a buck was going to go down. And on this particular hunt, a great looking representative of the mule deer species did just that.